Perhaps no other urban event in American history brought forth a mix of tragedy and heroism more so than did a devastating fire which ravaged the Richmond Theatre in Richmond, Virginia the evening of December 26, 1811. The inferno terrorized hundreds of playgoers with an unimaginable torture, and it took the lives of over 70 helpless souls. This article is a tribute to the people who perished at the theatre and to the many heroes of the holocaust whose exemplary actions saved lives.
No words can possibly describe the magnitude of horror that filled the Richmond Theatre that fateful night after Christmas. Nonetheless, I tried my best while writing this piece to portray the scene at the theatre as raging flames and dense black smoke brought forth a most horrendous calamity. The historic and horrific details presented here may not be of interest to everybody, but if you give this article a read you will likely gain much insight about the human soul, perhaps your own.
The author challenges you to venture into this story, put yourself at the scene of the burning playhouse, and ask yourself how you would respond in a similar situation. Would you flee from forces of peril with little or no regard for people in need around you? Or, as did the heroes presented in this story, would you rise to the occasion and do your best to save lives? Be honest with yourself. And, if you identify a weakness of character, it is my hope that this article will plant a seed of nobility within of you.
The original Richmond Theatre, a barnlike structure, first opened its doors in 1786, and the playhouse quickly became a cultural hot spot in Richmond. It was the place where the city's most prominent folks gathered to be fashionable, to socialize, and to satisfy their almost insatiable appetite for the arts. The theatre also was used to house cultural and political activities, and it was within its walls that 168 delegates from Virginia met and deliberated, ultimately ratifying the United States Constitution on June 25, 1788. Among the famous figures who participated in the Virginia Ratifying Convention were James Madison, Edmund Pendleton, William O' Callis, George Wythe, John Marshall, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and George Mason.
When fire destroyed Richmond's first theatre in 1802, the city was left with a cultural void. Nonetheless, many of the town's people, with the fire still fresh in their minds, warned against building a replacement playhouse. But, demand for the arts eventually won out, and a new playhouse, also called the Richmond Theatre, was erected in 1810 on Shockoe Hill at the North side of H Street, now Broad Street.
At the time of its opening, the new theatre was one of the grandest structures in Richmond. Consisting of multi stories, it housed an orchestra section, a huge performance stage, three levels of box seats, and more remote balcony seats. The building's brick construction also gave an illusion that the house was impervious to fire. This false sense of security ultimately brought doom to the Richmond Theatre less than two years after the first play there was held.
The day after Christmas in 1811 the mood in Richmond was one of joy, and scores of people were celebrating the holidays with parties, family get-togethers, weddings, and big feasts. Many of the convivial folks also had plans to visit the Richmond Theatre that evening, not knowing that fate was awaiting them.
The show on December 26 was looked at with much anticipation because it was to be a double-billing benefit performance for Alexander Placide, a popular and distinguished actor in Richmond. Driven by Placide's popularity and a love for the arts, over 600 people came to Richmond's only theatre to see the two billings. The first act was a French comedy entitled The Father, or Family Feuds. This play was the work of Denis Diderot, a central figure of French literature and the most prominent of the French Encyclopedists. The second act scheduled for the evening was a pantomime entitled, Raymond and Agnes, or The Bleeding Nun. This new and anticipated melodrama was to be presented for the first time at the Richmond Theatre, a contributing factor of a record crowd.
Many the people who gathered at the Richmond Theatre the evening after Christmas in 1811 were among Richmond's social elite. In the audience were state legislators, lawyers, doctors, scholars, war heroes, and other members of prominence. Numerous laborers, children, and servants were present as well.
It is of no small consequence that the wealthy playgoers occupied the three levels of box seats at the auditorium. To gain access to the box levels, ticket holders had to descend into a long corridor, ascend a narrow and winding staircase, and pass through a single narrow door. This entrance path also served as the sole accessible exit for people in the boxes, a design that proved to be fatal.
The poorer playgoers were assigned to seats in the theatre's balcony section. This section of the house was even higher than the box seats, but it was accessed from an outside and relatively roomy staircase, a configuration that allowed for rapid escape and which saved many lives. Private exit doors in the galleries and pit also allowed theatre performers and workers to gain access to the street relatively quickly. Unfortunately, few audience members knew of these doors, another factor that cost lives.
The first billing of the night had the crowd rolling with laughter, and after the comedy the audience was cheering wildly with applause. With the crowd high spirited and eager for the follow-up pantomime to begin, the orchestra performed a brief musical interlude to keep the full house entertained while theatre workers prepared the stage for the new melodrama.
In preparation for the first act of the pantomime, a chandelier was lit to illuminate the Cottage of Baptist the Robber, one of many hanging scenes. When the curtain fell after the first act, a boy worker was instructed to lift a chandelier out of sight. As the boy raised the lamp, he realized that one of its two oil candles was still burning, and he hesitated with concern. But, when a voice of authority instructed the youngster to continue pulling the chandelier upward, the boy resumed the lifting. Just then, the pulley system that was used to maneuver the chandelier bound up, and subsequently the boy forcibly jerked one of the pulley ropes in a desperate attempt to free the mechanism. The sudden jerk on the rope caused the lamp to swing violently back and forth, and a stage carpenter was heard to yell, “Put the chandelier out!” But, the carpenter's plea came too late; before the lit fixture could be lowered it brushed up against one of the sceneries, setting it on fire.
As the curtains rose at the commencement of the second act of the pantomime, Mr. West was on the stage unaware that behind the scene other actors and stage personnel were working frantically to tear down burning pieces and extinguish flames. The comic, however, became alarmed when he saw flakes of fire falling from the ceiling above him, and he cut short his lines and hurried behind the scene. Behind the scene, Mr. West saw that flames were spreading rapidly, and he assisted with efforts to get the fire under control. Moments later, he and several other actors fled to the street in fear for their lives.
After Mr. West's departure from the stage, Hopkins Robertson, the actor who played Raymond, stood alone as the only performer before the audience. Streaks of fire continued to fall from up high, but a cry heard from backstage earlier that there was no danger led to audience to believe that the observed luster of light was part of the show. Mr. Robertson knew better, and he signaled to the audience to leave the house with a gentle gesticulation hoping not to trigger panic. But, in the act of doing so, the actor saw that the flames were spreading across the house with a dangerous rapidity. In sudden distress, Mr. Robertson immediately pointed his hand to the ceiling, and he yelled out, “The House is on fire!”
Upon hearing those gut-wrenching words uttered by Mr. Robertson, playgoers scrambled in a mad rush to gain access to building exits. By this time, most of the actors and orchestra members had fled to the street through private doors. Most of playgoers in the balcony seats were also able to escape safely. But, people in the boxes were forced to fight their way through the narrow and winding passages that they had used to enter the building. Within minutes, these passages became filled with flames, and a grip of death strangled the Richmond Theatre.
The scene at the burning Richmond Theatre was nothing short of hellish. Dense black smoke filled the entire building, and many died of suffocation. Others were trampled to death by the rush of the crowd, burned to death by the fierce flames, or crushed lifeless by collapsed structures. And, some people were so badly burned before they managed to escape from the engulfed playhouse they later died from their injuries.
Perhaps confused and panic stricken, few people in the box seats realized that they could make hasty escape from the burning theatre by progressively jumping down into the pit below, a section that was left practically vacant and which had an accessible exit. Many of those who perished, perhaps, could have survived had they gone this path. Fortunately, one lady and one gentleman in the box were saved after they were unintentionally knocked down and into the pit by the rush of the frightened crowd.
The onset of flames at the Richmond Theatre brought forth a scenario of almost unimaginable horror. Practically everything in the building was combustible, including the oil painted sceneries, the draperies, the panels and pillars of the boxes, and pine planks that were nailed over rafters and covered with shingles. And, coupled with inadequate means of escape, the building was a death trap. People were seen running with their clothes on fire, screaming in agony. Several playgoers, with no other way out, leaped out of high windows. Many of jumpers suffered broken bones when they hit the hard ground below. Others were crushed to death when following jumpers landed on them. Such was the gruesome scene. In the words of a newspaper editor who had attended the performance:
“How can we describe the scene? No pen can paint it; no imagination can conceive it. A whole theatre wrapt in flames — a gay and animated assembly suddenly thrown on the very verge of the grave — many of them oh! How many, precipitated in a moment into eternity — youth and beauty and old age and genius overwhelmed in one promiscuous ruin – shrieks, groans, and human agony in every shape — this is the heartrending scene that we are called upon to describe.”
Within 10 minutes after the start of fire, the entire Richmond Theatre was engulfed in flames, and anybody trapped inside by this time was surely dead. The fire burnt itself out overnight, leaving behind it just a few smoldering timbers and numerous charred bodies. More people would later die because of burns or injuries they sustained while trying to escape the devouring inferno.
Among the dead were George William Smith, the acting Governor of Virginia, Abraham Bedford Venable, a former member of the Senate and then the president of the Bank of Virginia, Benjamin Gaines Botts, a prominent attorney who helped defend Aaron Burr during his famous treason trial, and James Gibbon, Jr., Lieutenant of the US Navy. Many women, three children, Members of some of the First Families of Virginia, and at least one slave also perished in the flames.
Many of the people who died at the Richmond Theater on December 26th did so searching for a child or a loved one. And, numerous survivors lost loved ones or friends in the great fire. Mr. Copeland experienced the horror of such tragedy. He had gone to the Richmond theatre with his wife, two of his children, Mary Clay (daughter of Matthew Clay, a Representative from Virginia), and two of Ms. Clay's friends. Margaret, one of Copeland's two daughters, passed in the flames. Miss Clay and each of her two companions also died in the disaster.
In a letter dated December 27, 1811, Copeland sent a letter to Matthew Clay to tell him of their horrific and heart-breaking losses. He wrote:
“I have a tale of horror to tell; prepare to hear the most awful calamity that ever plunged a whole city into affliction. Yes, all Richmond is in tears: children have lost their parents, parents have lost their children. Yesterday a beloved daughter gladdened my heart with her innocent smiles; to–day she is in Heaven! God gave her to me, and God — yes, it has pleased Almighty God to take her from me. O! Sir, feel for me, and not for me only; arm yourself with fortitude, whilst I discharge the mournful duty of telling you that you have to feel also for yourself. Yes, for it must be told, you also were the father of an amiable daughter, now, like my beloved child, gone to join her mother in Heaven.
How can words represent what one night, one hour of unutterable horror, has done to overwhelm a hundred families with grief and despair. No, Sir, impossible. My eyes beheld last night what no tongue, no pen can describe--horrors that language has no terms to represent.
Last night we were all at the theater; every family in Richmond, or at least a very large proportion of them, was there--the house was uncommonly full — when, dreadful to relate, the scenery took fire, spread rapidly above, ascending in volumes of flame and smoke into the upper part of the building, whence a moment after it descended to force a passage through the pit and boxes. In two minutes the whole audience [was] enveloped in hot, scorching smoke and flame. The lights were all extinguished by the black and smothering vapor; cries, shrieks, confusion, and despair, succeeded.
O moment of inexpressible horror! Nothing I can say, can paint the awful, shocking, maddening scene. The images of both my dear children were before me, but I was removed by an impassable crowd from the dear sufferers. The youngest (with gratitude to Heaven I write it), sprang towards the voice of her papa, reached my assisting hand, and was extricated from the overwhelming mass that soon chocked the passage by the stairs: but no efforts could avail me to reach, or even gain sight of the other; and my dear, dear Margaret, and your sweet Mary, with her companions, Miss Gwathmey and Miss Gatewood, passed together and at once, into a happier world. Judge my feelings by your own, when I found neither they nor my beloved sister appeared upon the stairs. First one, and then another, and another, I helped down; hoping every moment to seize the hand of my dear child, but no, no, I was not destined to have that happiness. O to see so, so many amiable helpless females trying to stretch to me their imploring hands, crying, ‘save me, sir; oh, sir, save me, save me!’ Oh God, eternity cannot banish that spectacle of horror from my recollection. Some friendly unknown hand dragged me from the scene of flames and death — and on gaining the open air, to my infinite consolation, I found my sister had thrown herself from the upper window and was saved — yes, thanks be to God, saved where fifty others in a similar attempt, broke their necks, or were crushed to death by those who fell on them from the same height. Oh, sir, you can have no idea of the general consternation — the universal grief that pervades this city — but why do I speak of that? I scarcely know what I write to you. Farewell. In haste and in deep affliction.”
The “friendly unknown” who pulled Mr. Copeland from the burning flames was one of many heroes at the Richmond Theatre who put their own lives on the line to save others. Among the brave souls who perished during their acts of nobility were Governor Smith, Lieutenant James Gibbon, and Mr. Marshall. Heroes who survived included Mr. Robertson, Mr. Robert Stanard, Dr. Thorton, Dr. James McCaw, and Gilbert Hunt.
Governor Smith had been sitting with his wife and his nine-year-old son when the cry of fire echoed across the Richmond Theatre. Smith first led his wife from the auditorium and into the lobby. He then ran back to the box seats to rescue his son. But, when Smith returned to the lobby with his son at hand, he could not find his wife. Fearing that his spouse may have ventured back into the auditorium, the governor went back into the large room to look for her. But, Smith never saw his wife again. During his search for her, he was burned to death. Unknown to the governor, his wife, who had been pushed forward by the push of the crowd, had escaped harm by jumping from a window.
After Lieutenant Gibbon went to sleep on Christmas night of 1811, he had a bad dream. When the lieutenant awoke the next morning, he found himself depressed and restless. His sister, wondering what was bothering him, asked Gibbon at breakfast what was wrong. As written in his sister's diary, the lieutenant responded in a most despondent tone:
“You all laugh at me I know, but I have had such a horrible dream that it has depressed me. I dreamt I was standing before a closed door about to enter, but conscious of some nameless horror something told me to keep back. The door slowly opened and I went in and found myself in a large hall dark and empty. After a few steps I saw a man's face standing out of the darkness, illuminated by a lurid light. All else was dark, the man's eyes were fixed on me and I was seized with a horror and depression I could not stake off.”
Viewing his dream as a premonition, Gibbon begged his lover, Sarah Conyers, not to go to the Richmond Theatre that evening. Miss Conyers refused to abide by her lover's wish, and later that evening she, along with a few acquaintances, went to see the anticipated performances without him.
Worried about his lover, Gibbon went to the playhouse and sat in his parent's box after the first act got underway. While sitting, he exchanged smiles with Sarah as she sat with her companions. Before disaster struck, however, Gibbon left the theatre believing all was well. But, after hearing the screams of fire emanating from the nearby theatre, the lieutenant rushed back to the playhouse to find his companion in peril. The next day, two bodies were found clasped together in a loving brace. Both bodies were burned beyond recognition, but the embraced lovers were identified as James Gibbon by his naval buttons and as Sarah Conyers by the gold-bead necklace she had been wearing.
After saving several women by helping them drop safely from a window, Mr. Marshall was about to leap to from the burning theatre when fierce flames had approached him. Just as he was about to jump, a frantic woman grabbed onto his neck, and they both fell together. Mr. Marshall was killed when he landed hard on the ground. The woman who held onto him survived.
When flames spread wildly at the Richmond Theatre, nearly all of the actors, orchestra members, and stage workers quickly exited the burning building through private doors. But, Mr. Robertson was not among theatre personnel who made a quick dash to the street. Upon shouting a warning of fire, the actor immediately ran up to the lower box stage and stretched his hands out to help people down and onto the stage, from where he helped them escape the encroaching flames.
Mr. Robert Stanard refused to leave the burning theatre knowing that his lover, Miss Craig, and her sister were still in the main room and in great peril. Risking his own life, Stanard braved the dense smoke and flames and saved the woman he loved. Despite his courageous efforts, however, Miss Craig's sister did not make it.
Prior to going to the theatre, Miss Homoselle, a beautiful young lady, had rejected Dr. Thorton's offer to accompany her, and she attended the playhouse with another man. Crushed, that evening the doctor wandered aimlessly around the theatre so that he would not see his rival with Miss Homoselle. But, when calamity struck, the young woman had become separated from her escort, and Dr. Thorton rushed to her aid. After finding his dream girl amongst the panicked crowd, the doctor led her to an open window. There, he helped Miss Homoselle get through it, and he carefully lowered her to safety on the other side. The doctor then, upon his escape from the burning building, once again pursued the lovely lady. Not long afterwards, they were married.
Gilbert Hunt was an enslaved blacksmith whose shop was not far from the Richmond Theatre. On the evening of December 26, just after he returned from worship at a local church, he was suddenly startled by a cry that the playhouse was on fire. His wife's mistress, frantic upon hearing the news, begged the blacksmith to rush to scene and save her only daughter. Gilbert was very fond of the mistress's daughter, and he ran right away towards the theatre with every intention to save her.
On his way to the theatre, Gilbert stopped at the house of a neighbor and pleaded with him to lend him a bed “on which poor creatures might fall as they leaped from windows.” His neighbor, who apparently had little heart, refused the blacksmith's request. Subsequently, Gilbert managed to obtain a step ladder, but by the time he arrived at the theatre a most horrible scene presented itself. As described in Gilbert Hunt's diary, “the door was too small to let the crowd, pushed forward by the scorching flames to get out, and numbers of them were leaping from the windows only to be crushed to death by the fall.”
Eager to help, Gilbert ran to a spot below a top window where several people had fallen to their death. As the blacksmith looked up, he saw James McCaw, a local doctor, standing at the window above. The doctor called upon him to catch each lady he was about to lower from the opened pane of glass.
Working as a team, Dr. McCaw and Gilbert Hunt saved 12 women from the burning flames, the last one being the doctor's sister. Gilbert had easily caught the first 11 women dropped from the window in his strong arms without incident. He later reflected that “. . . the ladies felt as light as feathers.” However, Gilbert's last catch proved to be more taxing. Like Dr. McCaw, his sister was big boned, muscular, and quite heavy. When she landed in Gilbert's arms after being dropped from the window by her brother, the force of impact knocked Gilbert to ground, and she hit the ground with him. Fortunately, neither of them was hurt.
Dr. McCaw's sister had been the last lady present in the portion of the theatre he was working. By the time she was saved, however, the fire had closed in on the doctor and his back was becoming scorched by the encroaching flames. Just when it looked like the end for him, the large man jumped from the window. But, during free fall the doctor's leather gaiter got caught on an iron projection, and he was left suspended in agony for several minutes. After breaking loose, Dr. McCaw fell to the ground, and upon landing he was horribly mangled. As described in Gilbert Hunt's diary some years later:
“He jumped from one of the windows, and when he touched ground, I thought he was dead. He could not move an inch. No one was near him; for the wall above, was tottering like a drunken man, ready at any moment to fall and crush him to death. I heard him scream out, ‘Will nobody save me’ and, at the risk of my own life, I rushed to him and bore him away to a place of safety.”
Dr. McCaw survived his fall, but he incurred many broken bones and internal injuries. As a result, he lived the rest of his life a cripple.
Despite his heroic efforts at the burning theatre, Gilbert Hunt was unable to save the daughter of his wife's mistress. Several years after the devastating fire at the Richmond Theatre, he wrote,
“I never found my young mistress, and suppose she perished among the many other young and beautiful females, who on that dreadful night passed so unexpectedly from time to eternity.”
Although calamity often inspires people to respond heroically, sometimes the weakness of a person's character is exposed when he or she is put in the face of danger. Such was the case the night of December 26 at the Richmond Theatre when a young girl, who had become separated from her companions as fire spread across the building, was shoved to the floor by the frantic crowd. She finally recognized one of her acquaintances in the moving mob, a man who was well known and highly respected by the community. The girl grabbed onto the man's coat skirt, and when she did he reached for his penknife and cut his coat skirt loose and fled. Fortunately, this girl survived, but she never did reveal who the cowardly man was who had betrayed her.
After giving Richmond's greatest disaster the slip, an exhausted Mr. Green rested at a fence and gazed at the charred remains of the theatre he had been seated in just minutes beforehand. When two other survivors approached, Mr. Green exclaimed, “Thank God I prohibited Nancy from coming to the house tonight. She is safe.” Nancy was Mr. Green's beautiful daughter who attended a boarding school run by Mrs. Gibson.
Earlier that evening, Nancy had asked her father if she could go to the theatre with Mrs. Gibson and her classmates to give a planned party. Mr. Green refused his daughter's request, and he justified his denial by telling her, “The house will be crowded, and you will occupy a seat that will otherwise be paid for.”
When Mrs. Gibson learned why Nancy's dad had forbid her from attending the planned party, the teacher told the girl that she would not leave her behind, and she promptly offered to pay for her occupied seat.
After Mr. Green made it back home, his daughter was nowhere to be found. He feared the worse, and later the distressed father learned that he had been horribly wrong. Nancy and her teacher were found lifeless in the very ruins that Mr. Green had fixed his eyes upon with great relief the night before.
The morning after the tragic fire at the Richmond Theatre, Gilbert Hunt returned to Shockoe Hill at the sight where the building once stood. Reflecting upon his return many years later, he wrote:
“The next day, I went to the scene where such awful sights had been witnessed. And oh! how my heart shudders even now at the things which then and there met my eye. There lay, piled together, one mass of half-burned bodies — the bodies of all classes and conditions of people — the young and the old, the bond and the free, the rich and the poor, the great and the small, were all lying there together. Some of them were so badly burned that it was impossible to recognize them. Others were almost uninjured [it appeared]; yet life had left their bodies, and there they lay, cold, and stiff, and dead.”
Just hours after flames left the Richmond Theatre in ruins, a committee was appointed to have the remains of those who perished in the fire collected, to identify the names of the victims, and to plan their funeral. Collected bodies were buried in a crypt at the spot where the playhouse once stood.
The city of Richmond was so shaken by what happened at their only theatre, following the tragic fire public shows of any kind were prohibited for four months and stores in the area were closed two consecutive days for mourning. A memorial monument was also erected near the spot in honor of the victims and to serve as a permanent reminder of the horrible holocaust that had occurred.
Richmond was not alone in their sorrow after news of their disaster had reached the nation. Theatres across America were closed following the tragic fire, and in Washington DC both houses of Congress passed a resolution to wear a badge of mourning for thirty days. Never before had a federal legislative branch implemented such an action.
Less than a year after the tragedy at the Richmond Theatre, a plan was developed to build a great memorial building on the site where the playhouse had burnt to the ground. John Marshall, then Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, took charge of the initiative, and the construction of the Monumental Church was completed in 1814.
In 1819, a new Richmond Theatre was erected at the corner of H and 7th Street. Incorporated into the new brick building were many safety improvements, among them fire-resistant materials of construction, more exits, and more accessible and larger exit doors. But, these improvements did little to pacify a weary public still mourning the great loss of life at the previous playhouse less than eight years earlier. And, coupled with a growing anti-theatre stance orchestrated by local clergy, years would pass before theatrical performances would once again become popular in Richmond.
The awful tragedy that occurred at the Richmond Theatre the night of December 26, 1811 must never be forgotten. Not only did 76 men, women, and children perish on that fateful night to the ravages of fire, Governor George W. Smith, Gilbert Hunt, Dr. James McCaw, Mr. West, and numerous other courageous souls showed us humanity at its highest level. Thus, out of the disaster at Shockoe Hill came many lessons, and it will do us well to learn from them.